Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Monday, 8 September 2008 12:02 UK

Reinventing the wheel to help disabled

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

The wheel folds in seconds

When David Hughes sets off to travel he has to plan his journey with meticulous care.

For David, aged 49, from Blackpool, is a wheelchair user and although he can use crutches for short distance, the majority of the time he needs his chair or a mobility scooter.

But transporting the chair - even those that purport to be lightweight and collapsible and adds an additional headache to each journey because of the inflexibility of the wheels.

"I have neurological problems, orthopaedic problems and osteoarthritis of the spine, I am partially sighted and need my wheelchair, but getting it folded onto planes, cars or trains is a nightmare," said David.

Major hassles

"Each time I get to an airport I pray to the wheelchair god that I get there and that my wheelchair gets there in one piece.

"If I am driving, I have an adapted car, so I can put my wheelchair behind my seat, but I have to dismantle it to do it and then I am stuck with two wheels that I have to sling on the back seat - so it is a major problem," he said.

Each time I get to an airport I pray to the wheelchair god that I get there that and that my wheelchair gets there in one piece
David Hughes

Now former art student Duncan Fitzsimons believes he has the answer to David and other wheelchair users' problems - collapsible wheels, which will make the chair more versatile.

Duncan, aged 26, from London, has already designed a collapsible wheel for use on a bike, and believes he is just a year away from adding this design to a wheelchair.

He says the 'Crossbreed folding wheel', which saw him in the final of the Saatchi and Saatchi world-changing ideas competition, will revolutionise the life of wheelchair users.

Innovative ideas

He came upon his idea, while watching a fellow student at the Royal College of Arts, trying to stash his road bike out of rain.

"The bike fitted the small space available - the wheels didn't. And no matter how the student struggled that bike wasn't going to fit," said Duncan.

Following his design success disabled people then started asking Duncan to try and redesign the wheel on their chairs.

"A wheelchair really needs large wheels. It's the key to being independent.

"If these wheels can fold up then wheelchair users can benefit from all the advantages of being able to fold their chair up into a much smaller package, whilst keeping the essential larger wheels.

"I haven't made a chair to go with the wheel, but this is not necessary as most major wheelchair manufacturers already make a folding chair.

"Unfortunately, without folding wheels these designs don't always help that much," he said.

Duncan and wheel
Duncan has had a fantastic response to the wheel

First models of this wheel will be made from carbon fibre composite, to meet the weight and stiffness requirements of the most demanding wheelchair users and Duncan hopes that these can be supplied at a cost which is as close as possible to non-folding high-performance wheels.

Further down the line he plans for a range of models to be made available for different budgets and performance needs.

Would-be customers

He already has a waiting list of users keen to trial his chair.

"I went to the mobility road show recently- I got the chance to show it to a lot of wheelchair users and it has been really good.

"There has been a pretty overwhelming response from every single person I have spoken to they say 'I want one of those it would be useful because of this or this.'

"There are already designs of chairs, which will go into an overhead locker or a flight case to go onto a plane, but the wheels won't fit so the airline insist you put them into the luggage hold.

"They are also the most fragile part of the wheelchair and I have had a lot of people say they have had their wheels trashed and then when they go on holiday they can't go anywhere or have damaged wheels.

"So to be able to bring the chair on the plane with them would be brilliant.

"Everyone was very enthusiastic," he said.

David Hughes said he is keen to test out any prototypes. "I have volunteered to be a guinea pig. This would revolutionise my life," he said.

Sir Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art (RCA), said: "This is the very much the kind of work we encourage and nurture here at the RCA: innovative design thinking that, when fully developed, has the potential to benefit a lot of people in a great many ways.

He added: "It's now official: the RCA has reinvented the wheel."

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